In his terrific new blog, Jurgen Derlath reports on the work of Kraut et al. concerning the sailence of the benefit (how aware you are of the benefit from participating in the community).
If you stress the benefit to the individual, or to the group, from participating in the community, does the level of activity increase?
The answer, surprisingly, is no.
In fact, by reminding members of the benefits to themselves or others, the level of activity decreased against the control group.
"Does reminding the participants of the potential benefits enhance the contribution rate? In order to answer the question, the benefit manipulation contained four conditions: no benefit, only benefit to self, only benefit to others, and benefit to both self and others. Once again participants were sent a personalized email. Participants who received
- the self-benefit message/the other-benefit message reduced their number of ratings,
- both self-and other-benefit messages increased their number of ratings almost to the level of the control condition.
This was contrary to the expectations of the researchers who had hypothesized that users would rate more movies when the personal benefit/the benefit provided to the community is made salient."
This is one study from one community. It might not reflect all communities.
However, it matches something we see often. When organizations stress the benefit to members, the psychological reason to participate changes. It becomes a transaction. In a transaction members give the least to receive the most. They participate solely to get something tangible from the community.
Persuading members to participate more is a subtler art than stressing benefits. It's a case of slowly socializing members with one another, nudging them in the right direction, coaxing them to give their opinions on issues. It involves gradually guiding members to feel a stronger sense of community.
Remember, the reason why people join and the reason why people participate are very different. Benefits might get people to make their first contribution. However, to keep them active, you need to take a different approach.
I've never seen a community's activity move upwards after stressing the benefit from participating.
We have a client that was struggling to get members to join.
It's a private, inception-stage, community. The concept seems good and well-researched. Existing relationships have been established with many members of the target audience.
However, the recipients weren't responding to the invitations to join. The e-mails were opened, but the links weren't clicked.
There are two interesting things here. First, with the data we have now it's incredibly easy to diagnose exactly what the issue is. If you look deep enough you can determine, specifically, why the intended action isn't taking place. Second, the tiny details make a huge difference.
We're programmed to ignore the majority of e-mails. Any e-mail that appears to contain a marketing message, is too long, has the wrong few words initially, is too formal (e.g. dear -vs- hi), lacks personality or personalization, contains the wrong subject line, originates from a corporate account, or has the wrong structure isn't going to get a response.
There is a danger here. Instead of realizing the tiny details are the problem, you can conclude that there is a major issue with the community concept.
De-lurking is a myth.
It's a tempting myth (f you could just get 5% of your lurkers to become active, the level of activity would skyrocket!), but still a myth.
It's not going to happen. Your lurkers aren't going to become regulars. This isn't ouropinion, there are great studies too.
I'm sure you can find a few anecdotal examples of long-term lurkers that became regulars. These are the exceptions, not the rule.
Members don't read, browse all the available topics, and then decide to participate. They make that decision very quickly. Review the stats in your community for yourself.
Lurking is the result of two things. 1) A lack of engagement initially and 2) The member's level of interest in the topic.
The time and effort trying to engage lurkers is better spent trying to engage your newcomers. If you get this right, the level of activity in your community will skyrocket.
p.s. Our December edition of community best practices is out. Click here to download it.
Virgin Media Pioneers, an online community for young entrepreneurs in the UK, launched with one fatal flaw. For users to interact, they had to record videos of themselves and post them to the site.
That's a big ask. First, the participant needs to have the right equipment. Then they need the knowledge to record the video. Then they need the confidence to be on a video. Finally, they need the motivation to keep doing it.
Not surprisingly, it didn't work out well (it's thankfully changed now).
This is an extreme example of a common problem. The more you ask members to do, the less participants you have. Sometimes this can work well, you just get the core group of dedicated members that you're looking for.
Most of the time it kills your participation levels.
I dislike communities that are based around members writing blogs to each other for the same reason. It kills the levels of participation. It's harder to do, less common, and there aren't many successful examples. This is also true of pictures (although some photo-based communities are thriving).
However, on the other end of the spectrum, asking members to do meaningless things doesn't work well either. If you're only asking members to like, vote, pin, retweet, share, and customize, you're not going to get high levels of sustained participation. These activities don't build bonds between members. They're not the type of investments into a community that keep people participating.
Nearly every successful community I can recall asks for members to post shortish messages to each other. You can add in easier and harder activities than posting messages later. However, nearly every community should be based around short, simple, messages.
If you're planning to deviate from this, you're taking a huge risk.
One of the hardest things to get right is the balance of discussions.
How many should you post? What type of discussions should you post? Which should you highlight? Look at this screenshot from UK Handmade.
Here you see a mixture of discussions designed for status-jockeying, bonding, and a few that convey information.
Notice a few things. The conveying information discussions are the least popular, The discussions that ask a question in the subject line are typically the most popular (or express something to do in the subject line).
However, this is a mature-stage community.
In the inception stage, we would suggest having a mixture of 30 / 70% open/closed discussions, without about the same levels on bonding/status jockeying discussions and those that convey information (i.e. have more than convey information – people don't know each other well yet).
As your community matures, gradually shift this to more open discussions which encourage members to reveal more information about themselves.
Registering for the community is a meaningless act.
Getting someone in the mindset to participate is what matters.
You get someone in the mindset by guiding them to something they find interesting and then finding a trigger to get them to participate.
Providing incentives for registration achieves nothing. It might look good to say 10,000 members joined, but you're no further towards your goal than you were before.
Hiding content behind registration just limits the likelihood of people finding something they want to participate in.
You only want people to register for your community when they're ready to participate.
Until then let them read everything they can. Let and encourage members to browse and peruse at your leisure. Identify the most popular search terms and ensure that related discussions appear on a page to newcomers (i.e. here are some discussions you might find interesting…)
Let visitors become experts in the topic before they join. Then solicit opinions and ask for their views at the bottom of discussions. Don't encourage members to register unless they're ready to participate. Once they are guide them towards an active discussions as soon as possible.
A fully open community is the best marketing tool your community has. The quantity, quality, and the people participating in your community is what will encourage other members to participate.
Unless there is a clear reason to hide it (e.g. in an exclusive community), then make open up everything and encourage members to share content and discussions far and wide.
Sometimes, those that manage 'serious' communities object to basic principles of community management.
They claim that 'serious' communities, such as communities of practice (CoPs) should only talk about issues that help members do their jobs.
If you go to any meetup for a community of practice, attendees talks about a range of issues. They talk about their frustrations, their lives, and offer support to one another. Sure, they still exchange advice and ideas, career opportunities, and much more – but this is never the focus.
People with something in common just love to chat about a range of things.
If it works for a meetup, why not for an online community? Does the internet change the dynamic of what we want to talk about? I doubt it.
If you want your community to be a place that members visit to exchange information, that's fine. However, it means that members will only visit the community when they need information. That might not be very often. In fact, the better your community performs the less frequently members will need to visit.
The alternative is to build a strong peer group of people that, yes, do exchange information but also talk about off-topic issues, provide emotional support, and broadly bond as a group. Now members visit to see what's new, not because they need something.
In communities like these, members might visit every week…perhaps every day.
This doesn't mean that every conversation tactic works for every community. You have to adapt these to suit your audience. You should, however, be open to casual conversations in your community. You will find that a smaller % of discussions exchange information, but there is a greater amount of advice overall.